The 2015 regular season is make or break for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a 2014 campaign that saw 2 years of rebuilding culminate into one of the top offences in the NFL and recapturing the AFC North division title, the Black and Yellow have experienced an eerie, almost concerning offseason following a flurry of devastating departures.
Back in April, legendary Safety Troy Polamalu announced his retirement after a twelve-year career that will go down as one of the greatest ever in Steelers’ franchise history. His departure opened cap room and gave the front office an incredible opportunity to reshape the dynamic of the Steelers’ defence this offseason.
Who did they go out and get? No one. Pittsburgh opted to go within to find Polamalu’s successor in Shamarko Thomas. Thomas featured in 11 games for Pittsburgh, tallying 5 tackles and is still plagued by ankle, Achilles and hamstring injuries. To replace a legend with an injury-prone player who only notched 5 tackles from last year? That’s a concerning thought for Steelers’ fans entering 2015. The only other option for Pittsburgh at Strong Safety to line up alongside Mike Mitchell is veteran Will Allen, but on the verge of turning 33 years old and entering his 12th season, he is not the long-term answer in the secondary.
Polamalu wasn’t the only veteran departure in the secondary this offseason, as Ike Taylor also announced his retirement shortly after the former. 24 years of NFL experience is now gone in the Pittsburgh secondary. Only William Gay stands as the sole established, recognisable Steeler veteran in the secondary heading into Training Camp.
Things certainly don’t look a lot brighter in the Linebacker core. The stunning retirement of Jason Worilds left Pittsburgh in an awkward spot come draft day, after only re-signing Arthur Moats as their sole response to filling the void on the outer edge. Drafting Bud Dupree was a bitter-sweet draft choice; he was the last of the top-end pass rushers in this year’s class. A physical freak of an athlete, it’s Bud Dupree’s decision-making and technical efficiency is pass rush that dampens his stock. Many knew full well that Dupree would be the most raw, unpolished pass rushing prospect projected in the 1st round.
If you consider the events leading up to the draft; Combine and Pro Days outings and the costly departures in the Pittsburgh secondary, I feel as if they completely missed a playmaking Free Safety in Damarious Randall out of Arizona State. His stock soared after a standout combine performance and stellar pro day; Green Bay picked up a gem at number 30 in the 1st round. Pittsburgh missed a shot at making a bold move that would have been a surprise to many, but would have given them some much-needed attention and optimism moving forward.
Nearly a year after his retirement from football, followed by a dramatic return to the Steeler nation in late September, OLB James Harrison signed a two-year extension to remain on the team. The amount of budding prospects biting at the bit to get more playing time is starting to pile up inside the Steelers’ Linebacker depth chart. Beyond Dupree you also have 2013 1st-round selection Jarvis Jones, who has still yet to break into the starting line-up. That in itself is a big concern; why aren’t your prized prospects able to physically progress through the depth chart? Jones now has to fend off Dupree, as well as fellow rookie Jordan Zumwalt, whilst trying to edge his way past two seemingly stop-gap starters in Harrison and Moats. At least things are working out for 2014 1st rounder Ryan Shazier on the inside.
To offer some comfort for Pittsburgh fans, nearly the rest of the team looks in top form heading into 2015 Training Camp, barring one very notable superstar. 2014 was the year when the Steelers compiled their own “big three” playmakers on offense. While QB Ben Roethlisberger was throwing over 120 receptions to WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell was torching front sevens with devastating rushing and dynamic plays out of the backfield. Then he got injured come the end of the year and was wiped out of the Steelers’ crucial Wildcard game against the Ravens. Baltimore crushed the Pittsburgh rushing attack. Fill-in starter Ben Tate and backup Josh Harris could only muster 44 yards between them, as well as spilling a couple of fumbles in the process.
Then Le’Veon Bell was suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the regular season, after he was charged with possession of marijuana and a DUI back in April. His short-term replacement and future back-up, DeAngelo Williams. Pittsburgh found arguably the most injury prone veteran in the free agent market. After a Wildcard game that proved that elusive running is not only uncomfortable in Pittsburgh’s offense, but struggles against AFC North opposition, the Steelers went and got a strongly recognised elusive rusher now aged 32.
Put it bluntly, this was not a good signing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Williams will go down as one of the greatest rushers in Carolina Panthers franchise history, but this past season of suffering hamstring, ankle and hand injuries scattered across 2014 will get the better of him come the fall. Combine his age and the lack of a consistent game time in recent memory, DeAngelo Williams will regress severely in the 2015 season.
It’s not that the Pittsburgh Steelers are in bad shape entering Training Camp. Big Ben’s passing attack and a solid Offensive Line will give Pittsburgh some form of production on Offense. What’s more, the Defensive Line is in stellar shape, as well as a potential breakout partnering of Shazier and Lawrence Timmons at the Inside Linebacker spots. But after an offseason with departure and mourning, clearly not enough has been done to resolve key holes on defence and in the running game. What’s worse, with the personnel selected to replace such legends and veterans now gone, I fear the Steelers have made their holes even bigger as the regular season edges closer.